This week, I decided to do a post on tips for those looking to travel (from someone who left on short notice-about four weeks!). The logistics can be tricky, so I'm offering some lessons I learned to make the transition as smooth as possible.
Before you go - find a friend (or a cultural exchange organization like InterExchange Working Abroad). I connected very early on with the organization I'm working for, Future Worlds Center (FWC). I established a relationship with one contact, who became my go-to for questions about visas, work permits, local housing and work schedules. Having her to answer questions saved me countless amounts of time between translating websites and actually finding the information I was looking for. U.S. citizens can stay up to 90 days in the E.U. visa-free, but anything past that needs a permit. FWC will guide me through the temporary residence permit application, for which I will state that I am fully funded (thank you, Christianson Grant!) and not being paid by the Cypriot economy. Jobs are tight here, and foreign workers have a hard time trying to get a job, so proving that you are financially stable, independent of the local economy, is key. For this reason, print and save all documents stating your funding sources and keep them with you when going to the migration offices. But most importantly, establish a local contact through your intended work program or through your personal network.
1. Figure out Finances
Figure out what you owe and leave with ZERO debt. It's best to be up-to-date on phone bills, credit cards, school loans/bills, taxes, medical bills, etc. Leave with little to no financial things that would create a huge hassle for you should the agency not be able to reach you, or things that will rack up a much bigger bill once you finally see it.
Go paperless: phone bills, credit card bills. Cancel magazine subscriptions/gym memberships/anything you pay for that you will not be using. Redirect your mail toward a relative or friend. Tip: If you're gone during the beginning of the calendar year, make sure you have someone to receive your W2s and hold them!
2. Inform Everyone!
Tell your bank, doctor, phone company and insurance companies that you are leaving the country. Give them an estimated time of return and a best way to reach you (usually email).
Suspend your phone line if necessary. With my T-Mobile account, I pay $10 per month to suspend the line. I put that bill on automatic payments so I can forget about it. The roaming charges can be expensive if you're traveling on your U.S. plan, so turn on airplane mode but also turn on WiFi so you can send/receive emails when you're in WiFi range. Personally, I scheduled my account suspension to be about two days after my arrival, just so that I had a way of contacting people in case of a problem. Once you arrive, you can buy a local SIM card (don't lose your U.S. one) and put it in your smartphone for local calls. I'm using a prepaid plan on a local number via my smartphone.
3. Organize your Documents
Documents that are VERY good to have when abroad (and to keep in digital form as well):
- Doctor's note of good health. You can go for a physical or request a note of good health from your physician.
- FBI Summary. This lets a country know that you were not convicted of any crimes in the U.S. I also got one, by chance after speaking with an officer, from my local police department. The FBI request you send in will require $18, fingerprints (do this ASAP) and a paper application. By the time I left, my summary had not returned. When it does, it will be sent to my home address and someone there will either scan/email or mail it to my new location. It's just a good thing to have when traveling in a new area.
- Copies (multiple) of passport, social security card and ID.
- In my case, I also brought the physical print-outs of my letters from the InterExchange Foundation and from the organization I'm working for. Prepare for questions at customs and be prepared to produce the documents that connect the dots of why you are here. Note: If you cannot get any of these you before you leave, take a picture or screenshot on your phone. Especially since airport WiFi can be unpredictable, and if your phone is either off or will rack up crazy roaming charges, try to prepare as much as you can in advance to not need the internet for the information you may need. Take your time during layovers to think ahead to the next location and what you might need on hand. Screenshots are a lifesaver!
5. Buy Tickets as Early as Possible
I only found out I received my Christianson Grant about a month before my intended leave date. The closer it gets to the date of departure, the higher the ticket price will be. If possible, buy when you know.
6. Get the Details Straight
Arrange as many details upon arrival as you can—as early as you can.</strong> My arrival time occurred over the holidays, and Europeans take holidays seriously ;). If you wait until the last minute and you need help, it can be really hard to reach anyone. Luckily, my contact at FWC had sent me a link for a cheap shuttle from the airport to downtown Nicosia. I booked a cheap ticket online during one of my layovers, avoiding a high cab rate for the 30-mile journey. From there, I took a quick cab to my new apartment.
I also had to do some long-distance research on housing. My first plan was to arrive, stay in a hostel and find somewhere to live. However, that seemed to be more of a hassle to me. Having ALL my belongings in a hostel seemed like a recipe for disaster, and I felt like not knowing my way around the city would mean lots of taxi rides and confusion, along with the pressure of finding the right place. I decided to take a chance and reach out to a few realtors. Luckily for me, Nicosia is small, and properties are available. I was able to browse detailed descriptions and pictures of apartments very easily. Anyone I contacted responded to me right away with as much help as she or he could. I eventually decided on a bedroom in a 3-BR flat about 3km from my office. The apartment is near the bus stop I need to get into work in the mornings. It's within walking distance of shops and stores, and the buses come through the bus stop on time all day.
The location and travel time to work were my main concerns when deciding on an apartment. Decide what is most important to you, and do some research ahead of time! Also, check in with the organization for past connections for living arrangements. It's likely that someone knows of an apartment or room for rent and who can help you from your new location.
7. Credit Cards
After much research, choosing an international credit card boils down to two things: All credit cards unless otherwise specified can and will charge 3% on each foreign transaction. The bank itself can also charge an additional percentage, usually 2% for currency conversion on that purchase. That 5% over the course of six or more months will add up for any traveler, and of course, avoiding unnecessary fees is ideal!
Three great travel rewards/no-foreign-transaction-fee cards are: Bank of Americard, Capital One VentureOne Rewards and Chase Sapphire Preferred. All have various benefits and bonus rewards (read more on nerdwallet). I had trouble getting the BOA and the Capital One in time to leave, so I ended up with the Chase Sapphire Preferred. The rewards are way out of my league, but avoiding the foreign transaction fee was my main goal.
The second thing is that mostly every other country in the world uses chip-and-pin cards, so you can have a tough time using the swipe-only, and you don't want to be caught without cash or a working credit card. The three cards I mentioned are all chip-and-pin, and the general thought is that the U.S. is moving toward this system as well. In an emergency, meaning that you are going abroad very soon and do not have a chip-and-pin or a no-FT-fee card, there is one more option. Travelex has a credit-debit hybrid that is not connected to your personal information (which is nice if you lose it). You buy it like a gift card online (and you can usually pick it up same-day from a nearby location or at the airport). You load your own money onto it in your chosen currency and you can refill as you go. This is ideal for shorter trips or in the case of an emergency, and it does have a chip-and-pin. This was going to be my last step in case my Chase didn't come in time—luckily, it arrived the day before I left. :)
8. Travel Light
It may sound obvious, but having just one tote bag on the flight made things a lot quicker for me as I hustled between terminals on my layovers. Being able to get through security quickly left me more time to figure out where I was, what time is was and where I needed to be. Royal Jordanian allows travelers to check two bags free (amazing). I kept my documents, money, books, iPod, toothbrush and phone in my bag. I also had a few clothes items in there in case there was some problem with my luggage.
Think a few steps ahead with currency in case you're stuck somewhere that only takes cash on a layover. In the U.S., get a few Euros and keep a few dollars just in case. You can always resort to the credit card if you need it.
9. Time Zones
Use your smartphone to keep track of time zones without using data/roaming. Most phones have an app where you can add the current times of multiple cities. Add your hometown, each place you have a layover and your destination. That way, when you leave at night, fly for 12 hours and arrive at sunset, you can quickly understand what you should be doing to keep your body on a normal sleep schedule.
10. Learn the Language
Finally, if it's a non-English speaking country, learn the language. The language is not only the best way to truly understand a culture and its people, it is a sign of respect to the community to not assume everyone will speak YOUR language in another country. Learn the basics before you go if you are not already proficient, and practice using it whenever you can. As you speak with locals, many are happy to speak with a beginner. Sometimes it can be challenging to have the confidence to attempt a new language in public, but the entire point of traveling is to get out of your comfort zone!!
And then you can pack your bags and enjoy the trip. Happy traveling!